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2009/06/08 15:38 KST
(2nd LD) N. Korea sentences two U.S. reporters to 12 years in labor prison

By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, June 8 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's highest court on Monday sentenced two U.S. journalists to 12 years in labor camps for a "grave crime" and illegal entry, Pyongyang's news agency said, a harsh verdict that escalated confrontation with Washington.

The U.S. State Department said it is "deeply concerned" and called for the immediate release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

   "The trial confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing," the Korean Central News Agency said, "and sentenced each of them to 12 years of reform through labor."

   The brief report did not specify what the grave crime was.

   The trial at the Central Court in Pyongyang was unusually long, running for five days from Thursday, the report said. The top court does not allow appeals.

   The female reporters from Current TV, a San Francisco-based Internet outlet co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, were detained near the border with China by North Korean guards on March 17 while working on a story about North Korean defectors.

   Convicts sentenced to labor in North Korea are subject to hard work at farms, mines, construction sites or factories, said Cho Myung-chul, a former economics professor at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung university who defected to the South in 1994 and now an analyst at a Seoul think tank.

   U.S. State Department said it is using all channels to win their release.

   "We are deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two American citizen journalists by North Korean authorities and we are engaged through all possible channels to secure their release," spokesman Ian Kelly said in a written statement.

   Watchers believe North Korea eyes chances of opening direct dialogue with the U.S. through the case. Diplomatic tension has escalated, as Washington strongly denounced Pyongyang's long-range rocket test in April and is now working with Seoul, Tokyo and the U.N. Security Council to punish the North's second nuclear test last month.

   U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew a line, saying the journalists' case should not be connected to diplomatic disputes.

   "We believe that the charges against these young women are absolutely without merit or foundation," Clinton said in an interview with ABC television over the weekend.

   She said, "clearly, we don't want this pulled into the political issues that we have with North Korea or the concerns that are being expressed in the United Nations Security Council. This is separate; it is a humanitarian issue."

   The verdict was harsher than usually expected for "hostile" activities or espionage in North Korea. According to the North's criminal law, those charges usually carry a sentence between five to 10 years in labor camps.

   Iran's court had given an eight-year sentence to Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi for espionage. She was released weeks later.

   "North Korea will likely intend to keep the "card," rather than release them immediately, so as to connect it to bilateral political issues. It will try to pressure the U.S. into softening the harsh sanctions it is considering on Pyongyang," Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, said.

   Clinton said the U.S. is considering putting North Korea back to a terrorism-sponsoring nations, from which it was lifted in October last year amid progress towards denuclearization.

   Negotiations have won releases in previous cases. Bill Richardson, New Mexico governor, flew to Pyongyang to win the release of Evan Hunziker, who swam across the river that borders with China in 1996. He was released in three months.

   U.S. Army helicopter pilot Bobby Hall was released 13 days after his helicopter strayed into North Korea in 1994. The two cases did not involve trials.

   North Korea has also been holding a South Korean citizen for months. The Hyundai Asan Corp. employee was detained at a joint industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong on March 30 for criticizing the North's political system and trying to incite the defection of a local female worker. The North has neither allowed access to him nor said how the case will be handled.